Hunter-Reay finds stability in second season with Andretti
Ryan Hunter-Reay's legacy will always include the crucial role he played in bringing Izod, starting its second year as the title sponsor, into the IndyCar Series. That relationship worked out well for Hunter-Reay, too.
Without Izod's backing in 2009 and 2010, he likely wouldn't be starting his second season at Andretti Autosport.
It is stability that Hunter-Reay can appreciate. He's never had one full season follow another with the same team in a career that began in CART/Champ Car in 2003.
Hunter-Reay's struggle to find opportunities to drive were not related to his talent. He has four victories, two in CART/Champ Car and two in IndyCar, including last season's win at Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. Hunter-Reay, 30, also was the Indy 500 Rookie of the Year in 2008, when he finished sixth.
He has found a home at Andretti, which has him signed through the 2012 season. Hunter-Reay was the only American to win an IndyCar race and he was the highest finishing American in the points -- seventh -- in 2010. With stability comes continuity and Hunter-Reay will have the same group of people working on his Dallara-Honda as he did a year ago. They have something to build upon.
It has been a long and frustrating road for Hunter-Reay to reach this season. His first CART team was funded by the series and folded when it went bankrupt in 2003. Hunter-Reay's teams the next two seasons bounced him out to hire drivers who brought sponsors.
Bobby Rahal hired Hunter-Reay for the final six races of the 2007 IndyCar season and re-signed him for 2008. After practice one day at Indianapolis, Hunter-Reay met Izod Director of Marketing Mike Kelly, who was surveying the landscape to see if the Indy 500 and the IndyCar Series were worth investing marketing dollars. Hunter-Reay invited Kelly to his motorhome to talk about it. Five weeks later, during a race weekend at Watkins Glen, Izod signed Hunter-Reay to a personal services contract and became IndyCar's apparel sponsor.
Hunter-Reay went out and won the race that weekend. Izod began using him in its print ads and television commercials to promote its involvement in IndyCar. Its interest in IndyCar grew quickly and Izod signed a long-term agreement to become title sponsor in November 2009.
Rahal Letterman Racing lost its primary backer, a coalition of American ethanol producers, following the 2008 season, and Hunter-Reay was unemployed again. Vision Racing owner Tony George and Kelly worked out a deal to partially sponsor Hunter-Reay and he finished second at St. Petersburg, Fla., in the season opener. Hunter-Reay drove in six races for Vision, then moved to A.J. Foyt's team for the final 11 races to replace the injured Vitor Meira.
"Going from a great team at Rahal Letterman, there was some continuity there, and then the ethanol sponsorship went away," Hunter-Reay said. "I was lucky enough to join Vision and things got financially tight there and then I was lucky enough to work with A.J. Jeez, that guy is a legend and it was great to drive for him, but neither of those teams were long-term solutions and I don't think they were ever meant to be.
"So, to be with Andretti and to see the horizon, to see where I'm going and see the future is great."
Team owner Michael Andretti signed Hunter-Reay without having a full-season sponsor. Andretti committed to running him through Indianapolis, the sixth race of the season.
"I knew going into the  season it was probably my best opportunity ever," Hunter-Reay said. "There was absolutely an urgency to come up with results because the quicker the results came, the sooner my deal [for the entire year] would be done, or at least you would hope to think it would be that way.
"We came right out of the gate real fast, finished second in Brazil in the season opener and won at Long Beach [third race]. It definitely made for a sense of urgency, but, unfortunately, I'm used to jumping from car to car, team to team, being ready to go and making sure I'm on the pace as competitive as soon as possible."
Andretti kept finding new commercial partners, and after the ninth race of the season at Watkins Glen, Hunter-Reay's car had funding for the rest of the 17-race season. Hunter-Reay rewarded them with a third at Toronto and a fourth at Chicagoland and ended the season with three podiums, six top-5s and 12 top-10s.
Hunter-Reay's win at Long Beach was the most satisfying of his career.
"That was a special race at Long Beach for so many reasons," Hunter-Reay said. "It's like the Indy 500 of street racing. I dedicated it to my mother [who died the previous year] and I was really honored to bring Michael [Andretti] his first win as sole owner of Andretti Autosport. It's a race I had looked forward to winning since I was little."
The season's low point for Hunter-Reay was running out of gas on the final lap of the Indy 500 in Turn Four and having Mike Conway's Dallara make wheel-to-wheel contact that sent Conway airborne and left him with serious injuries. Hunter-Reay escaped almost unharmed.
"It was a real bummer that it happened like that. When you run out of fuel in these cars, it's like hitting the brakes. You go from wide open to nothing. I'm sorry that Mike was hurt. That's a shame."
Hunter-Reay and the Andretti team's weakness a year ago was inconsistency on ovals.
"The ovals were hit and miss," he said. "One day we'd show up and we were top five regularly, and then the next race it would be off the pace and we'd start in the back. We'd work through it and finished regularly in the top 10. We have some progress to make on the ovals for this year and I think we will because we know where we went wrong. At least we know what we did and where we need to improve."
Hunter-Reay has every reason to set his ambition high for 2011.
"We want to win numerous races this year, that's the goal, and to fight consistently in the top five," Hunter-Reay said. "Anything short of that and I'll be very disappointed."
Hunter-Reay figures to be a top contender to win the IndyCar championship and become the first American to do it since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006. He has everything -- talent, experience and team -- in place to add to his legacy.